Monday, October 24, 2005

Andrew Hacker's "The Truth about the Colleges"

Andrew Hacker has written a NYRB essay review of several books on higher education. While I found the essay to be provocative at times and containing some deftly worded quips, I was frustrated by its emphases. The essay appears, given its audience, to be slanted toward those who are most concerned about elite liberal arts colleges and their particular contributions. I attended one of these, but the landscape of higher education only has a small corner for such.

I asked several colleagues to comment on the essay review, and here are their remarks.

Judith Gappa: Since several books are being reviewed, the essay jumps around among several important but not easily integrated topics. I'll start with the first one which deals with undergraduate access, curriculum and faculty performance in the class room --i.e. undergraduate education. The review is good at unveiling the kinds of privileged and moneyed people who attend the "best" institutions, and is concerned mainly with the quality of the education they receive. Interesting reading for me, since I went to one of the elite private colleges -- Wellesley College -- as an undergraduate. What is said in the review does not correspond to my experience. I was hardly privileged or moneyed when I was accepted. I had attended three public high schools, the last and worst of which was in Oklahoma where I graduated, and I went to Wellesley on a scholarship. So much for moneyed and privileged. Of course that was a long time ago --

But ACCESS for those who are not privileged or moneyed (i.e. the poorer people educated in the public schools) is one of the major issues facing higher education, states and the nation these days. An undergraduate degree is seen as the ticket to a middle class lifestyle, and the under-representation of various minority and ethnic groups continues to be troubling. The overall quality of education of the American public can be described as one of the major national problems we face these days. These issues are not discussed here. So the problem from my perspective is not what the article says at the end "Far too few of our undergraduates are getting the education they want and deserve"; the problem is, are they getting any higher education when it is a prerequisite for a middle class lifestyle. Further, as a professor, I would question that the average undergraduate student has the knowledge and sophistication to define the education they want. They may be able to define what outcomes they want to achieve, but they don't have enough knowledge to know how to get there.

Regarding the corporatization of the academy, and the skewed rewards system for faculty members: I would agree with the essay that it is not in the students' or the colleges and universities' best interests to spend their time chasing dollars rather than imparting learning. If professors are mediocre (or worse) in the classroom, it is in part because of lack of rewards for doing well --and to the extent it is happening, we have indeed moved away from what should be our chief mission and preoccupation.

Sherman Dorn: Hacker's idiosyncratic essay is like much of the discussion of higher education today: thoughtful and yet scattered and without much grounding in key conditions in higher education. Much of what he says is true, and yet...

And yet there is something strikingly false about a focus on elite private institutions and public flagship universities when the vast majority of students attend public schools such as Hacker's own Queens College. Yes, we should worry about the quality of a Harvard education, but I worry far more about the quality of a University of North Florida education. We should worry far more about Standard & Poors' 2005 report on privatization and its threats to poorer public institutions than the rising tuition at Williams.

And Hacker's argument about full professors not only focuses on elite institutions (where neither Hacker nor I work) but ignores a key reason why full professors' ranks have grown in comparison to full-time faculty: Institutions are less likely to hire full-time, ranked faculty for vacancies than they were 30 and 40 years ago. The legacy of that change is inevitably an older population of ranked faculty and what may appear to be top-heavy institutions. There are plenty of younger, non-full professors, but Hacker's numbers don't include those who are instructors, lecturers, and adjuncts.

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